Cloud technology changes everything
02 June 2016 - By James Greenland
“I know people have been saying ‘change is coming’ for years without it happening, but this time it really is.
“’Legal tech’ is taking off around the world, as people see how technology has revolutionised other industries and professions and want to bring the same benefits to law,” says Gene Turner, former Buddle Findlay partner and founder of new business www.LawHawk.nz.
Legal document drafting automation
Recently launched LawHawk Limited provides automated legal document templates to New Zealand lawyers and procurement specialists, which Mr Turner says enables faster document drafting – “minutes versus hours” – with better quality and consistency than traditional methods.
Not itself a law firm, LawHawk “enables lawyers to spend more of their time focusing on things that will make the biggest difference to their clients, at prices that clients are happy to pay,” he says. It will also contain a free legal directory for members of the public to find lawyers committed to working efficiently.
Utilising HotDocs’ document automation technology, the LawHawk user interface prompts lawyers to input relevant details then automatically drafts a customised legal document based on those key inputs.
“Document automation isn’t new,” Mr Turner says.
“The challenge has always been how to make it easily available and easy to use, which recent advances in cloud computing have enabled.”
An early and “instant convert”, Mr Turner says he was first shown the potential for such technology in 2000 when working for Westpac. Automating the loan agreement drafting process reduced an hour of work to about three minutes, he says.
An even earlier indication of his interest in systemising and disrupting legal practice, Mr Turner says he suspects he was one of the first law school undergraduates to compile and sell study notes to students.
“My typed first and second year notes were so good that in later years friends and I professionally printed them and sold them widely.
“They were still in circulation when my brother arrived at the University of Otago a few years later.”
While determined to disrupt the tired, time-consuming processes of traditional legal practice, Mr Turner’s entry into the profession was fairly typical of other high-achieving law students.
It wasn’t until after starting practice, with Buddle Findlay’s corporate and finance team in 1997, that he began to see opportunities to improve how things were done by big law.
Just how it is?
“I had a great start working on a stream of M&A and banking deals, but was working relentlessly and when I asked the partners at the time for help to change things, they couldn’t see my problem.
“’That’s just how it is in a big law firm. ‘Don’t worry, you’re doing great’ was what they told me. And it was true, that’s how it was at that time.”
Seeing no flexibility and facing a traditional reluctance to change, Mr Turner joined Westpac with the intention of transitioning out of law. However, inspired by his colleagues, particularly then Westpac General Counsel Simon Jensen, and in-house practice generally, he stuck with it, going on to work at CMS Cameron McKenna in London and then Chapman Tripp, “looking for ways to build a practice that could combine the best elements of in-house with private practice”.
“But by 2006 I was again struggling with how to build a satisfying legal career,” he says.
Jason Boyes, then a partner at Buddle Findlay, convinced him to return to the firm four days a week while studying for an MBA at Victoria University, on the basis he could leave at any time.
“Because I’d formed this fixed view about ‘how it is in a big law firm’, and was focused on my plan to find a career outside law, partnership wasn’t something I was focused on, even though it quickly became apparent that there were opportunities there.”
Taking a paper on decision making as part of the MBA in 2008, he says he realised the value of changing your frame of reference to get a different perspective on things.
“I took a fresh look at my view that I couldn’t have a satisfying career in a big law firm, because ‘they are how they are’.”
Realising how much he liked the clients and the team he was working with, and how different things already were, he joined the partnership and found satisfaction in some challenging transactions like Infratil and NZ Super’s purchase of Z Energy, and initiating “all sorts of new projects” to make as many effective changes as possible.
“Buddle Findlay is a fantastic firm, but the problem when you don’t have a clear plan for your practice, which I never did, is that you can end up over time drifting away from the things you enjoy and are best at.
“I felt that while I was working harder than ever, I wasn’t as effective as I had been, and that the window of opportunity to spend quality time with my kids while they still wanted to spend time with me was rapidly closing.
“Knowing how fortunate I was to be in the position I was in, I thought really hard about it, and could probably have ‘reframed’ and re-balanced things again, but I also really wanted to stand on my own feet and have a crack at something new.
“And if I didn’t do it now I’d probably never do it.”
So he left the partnership, to make an impact on legal practice from outside the profession.
Cloud technology changes everything
He says it’s “cloud technology” that will bring to the profession the paradigm shifting changes that have been so long anticipated.
“Lawyers with an eye to being efficient and delivering great service need to consider four words: ‘Cloud technology changes everything’.”
Cloud computing refers to the practice of storing and accessing data and using software programs over the Internet, instead of on your computer’s own hard drive.
For small firms, this means they won’t need to own, install and maintain expensive and complex computer, server and knowledge management systems any more, Mr Turner says.
“There’s whole networks of cloud-based legal start-ups that are forming around people who are open to new ideas and ways of working fast and collaboratively based on proven ideas from other disciplines.
“You can usually do free trials of the best technology from around the world, pick the combination that’s best for you, and then pay for only what you use.”
They’re designed to integrate with other systems and to import and export information easily.
You don’t need one system that does everything any more – because it probably won’t be the best at any single thing and you’ll lose flexibility.
All law firms are going to have to determine their response to the rise of innovative legal tech services and the exciting opportunities they bring, Mr Turner says.
“Document automation will be the way lawyers work – the key is how you will do it.”